This essay is primarily based on remarks made at the first North American Convening of the Rights of Mother Earth Conference at Haskell Indian Nations University, April 4-6, 2012. It will appear as a fuller version in Dr. Wildcat’s next book.
Since the first North American convening on the Rights of Mother Earth (2012), U.S. citizens have observed unprecedented deadly and damaging fires from California through the inter-mountain West. In California, the town of Paradise was obliterated. From the U.S. Gulf Coast to the Mid-Atlantic, and continuing to interior New England and its coast, we have witnessed some of the worst hurricane damage and associated weather system flooding in U.S. history. In both cases, it is not too extreme to say we humans are making history in a new, unparalleled sense. Human-induced or anthropogenic changes to landscapes and seascapes offer an ex post facto demonstration that we are indeed living in a new period of earth history – the age of man, or the Anthropocene.
A good number of humankind has been behaving badly. Modern economic and political institutions have been doing business in ways that are seriously degrading, if not actually destroying, the very conditions on which human and our nonhuman relatives’ lives and well-being depend. The good news is that Peoples still remain on the planet that have knowledge about living well on the planet that are conducive to human well-being and systems of life-enhancement.
Indigenous Peoples of our Mother Earth must provide the leadership required for this cultural climate change to occur.
What follows are seven useful points for us to consider as we transition from identifying problems to enacting Indigenous solutions for the many challenges facing us.
1. We speak from a place of powerful spirit
The First Peoples of this land speak from a place of power. It is not economic, political, or jurisdictional power. It is a power of spirit – a power of beauty – and, contrary to conventional thought, rich and efficacious when applied to practical problem-solving.
Seventeen years ago, Dr. Henrietta Mann, a Southern Cheyenne woman, reminded students here at Haskell Indian Nations University of the power of spirit. Dr. Mann said (I paraphrase), We are spirits before we come into this world. We come into this world as spiritual beings - we know that. What we are struggling to become, to figure out, in this life is how to become competent human beings.
We cannot set our spirituality aside or take it “off the table.” There is no negotiation about this feature of our existence. There is no way to mitigate spiritual concerns that we are going to bring forward when we address environmental issues.
2. Power plus place equals personality
We speak with a power that pervades the universe – the cosmos - which leads to my second point: power plus place equals personality. One of our great intellectuals, Vine Deloria, Jr., often spoke about how power and place equals personality (What I call the 3P formula.) constituted the foundation of American Indian metaphysics. Places are important, for every place on the planet represents a unique constellation of relationships that express power.
Every living thing in their personality is an expression of the constellation(s) of relationships in which we are situated. As unique tribal Peoples, whose cultures were and often remain emergent from and expressions of the geo-, eco- and bio- logical environments forming the places we honored as home, we must be mindful that our activities draw on the power of place. Our Indigenous solutions to the incredible challenges we face must engage the active symbiotic relationship of what I call the nature-culture nexus. We must honor this relationship.
3. The mis-educative nature vs. culture dichotomy
As we renew mindful relations to the places where we live, we may be able to disabuse modern humankind of the most mis-educative dichotomy that operates in the modern mind – the dichotomy between nature and culture. Our unique tribal identities are expressions of our homelands, where the Creator gave us our stories of creation, songs, ceremonies, customs, and habits.
Discussions of cultural and ecological diversity must not continue as if they were mutually exclusive categories - they are not. They were inextricably coupled around the world until very recently in our human history. Humankind must acknowledge the nexus that has given us our unique tribal and indigenous identities – a diversity emergent from the landscapes and seascapes we called home. This would be a step forward.
4. A Reconstruction of the Old Ways
We must reinterpret and renew old ways – our older traditions that embody the application of practical knowledge and wisdom residing and poised to emerge in the places where we live today. We are not talking about going back to some existence in the past nor running to catch-up with some a priori future. That is another thought system: a linear chronologic timeline view of our past, present, and future.
We are bound-up in a symbiotic NCN and as Greg Cajete in Look to the Mountain has emphasized, a spiritual ecology: an ecology that includes human communities negotiating relationships with the other life in these unique environments and eco-systems. This proposal for a reconstruction requires an Indigenous ingenuity or Indigenuity – a creative application of ancient tribal wisdom to the environment in which we are currently situated.
5. We live among Relatives NOT Resources
Most of humankind talks about resources, because the worldview guiding the powerful economic and political interests operates in those terms. This terminology is overwhelmingly anthropocentric and selfish, hence other-than-human life is denominated by resources.
We must promote a worldview where the natural world is full of relatives. For in so doing the logic of rights becomes blatantly incomplete without a counterbalancing of rights with responsibilities. A counter-balance to the one-sided fixation on individualist inalienable rights with an affirmation of Indigenous notions of in- and un-alienable responsibilities is desperately needed. Let’s start a discourse about living well responsibly and respectfully with relatives. This is not romanticism. I call this Indigenous Realism.
6. Promoting Systems of Life-Enhancement
People sometimes tell me, “You are against progress, aren’t you?” I guess, if one defines progress by measuring improvement on the planet only through an anthropocentric lens that identifies progress exclusively as about our human physical convenience, comfort, and capital gains at the expense of the rest of life with whom we share the planet, maybe I am not that keen on progress.
However, I am for something. I want to build systems of life-enhancement, not just for ourselves, but for all of the life with whom we share this planet. Not for the sake of some abstract notion of nature, but the life-systems in those big lakes in the North, the grasslands of the Midwest, the Northwest coastal estuaries, and those pacific islands where our brothers and sisters live.
Our challenge will be to inspire a generation of life-time volunteers for what might be called a physical and spiritual earth-system wellness program.
7. Beauty resides in the difficult work of difference
My final point is this – promoting beauty and systems of life-enhancement in a world full of ugliness is often difficult work. Our work should embrace the beauty of difference. Few of us see the world in monochrome or fail to differentiate the sounds we hear, a condition called auditory agnosia. Maybe it is the advertisers, manufacturers, and those seeking lowest per unit cost of production mesmerized by profit that move into a sort of experiential one-dimensionality. It is not too much to ask that our human creations are complementary and cooperative in relation to the natural systems where they are placed.
Take this with you
We must acknowledge the fact that we have been given incredible gifts by our Mother Earth. It takes a long time to offer thanks to and for all that has been gifted to us. Chas Wheelock and I were at a meeting at Wingspread several years ago, when one of our hosts asked one of his Oneida relatives to offer an opening prayer. The elder was hesitant. The elder asked the host, How much time to you have?
The host responded, well, how long does it take? The elder said, well, it takes a long time. The well-meaning but naïve host asked, Can you do a short version? The elder’s response was intelligent and instructive. The elder asked, What part of creation do you want me to leave out? We will not leave out any of our relatives in our prayers. Nor will we forget them in the hard work we have ahead of us.
There is work for everyone and we have progeny of the settlers that want to be our allies – these relationships are crucial to our success. It is time to roll-up our sleeves and get to work. It is time to demonstrate what it means to conduct our human lives as competent, mature relatives.
Daniel Wildcat, Ph.D., is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and an accomplished scholar who writes on Indigenous knowledge, technology, environment, and education.